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Crafting a Future for Women Entrepreneurs

This story is part of a series on IFC’s work to help create markets that give new opportunities to people in developing countries. These innovative approaches have helped solve some of the largest problems in countries or, sometimes, entire regions.

 

By Inaê Riveras, IFC Communications

BEIRUT, Lebanon— For centuries, artisans adept at marquetry—the application of pieces of veneer to form decorative patterns—created furnishings and luxury items that decorated wealthy homes and other spaces. In addition to skill, the technique requires time and intensive labor: An artist can easily take an entire month to finish a shoe-sized box.

Many see marquetry as a dying art form, especially because of the amount of work it entails. But 31-year-old Lebanese designer Nancy El Asmar has long perceived it as a business opportunity.

“I wanted to bring this craft to my generation before it disappeared, by combining traditional work like mosaics and marquetry with contemporary materials,” says El Asmar, who was introduced to the technique through her father-in-law, a skilled craftsman.

 

El Asmar used her savings to open her first workshop in 2008, and the number of orders increased quickly. She could handle the work as long as the shop expanded, but she couldn’t access the financing she needed.

“At the beginning, nobody took me seriously,” she says. As a businesswoman, it was hard to establish trust among suppliers. It was also hard to persuade banks that she was a reliable borrower since she didn’t have a credit history.

But IFC client BLC Bank shared El Asmar’s vision. Through a platform directed at women-owned small and medium enterprises it had just launched, the bank provided her shop, Madera Creation, with a $50,000 loan. Now, 20 employees work alongside El Asmar to revive the art of marquetry for a new generation of appreciative consumers—working in a larger space that accommodates the demands of her business.

 

An Intricate Mosaic

Small and medium companies such as Madera Creation drive the Lebanese economy . They account for 97 percent of all enterprises and employ more than half of the country’s population. But women entrepreneurs are vastly underserved by the financial sector, as El Asmar discovered. Despite owning 33 percent of businesses overall, they receive only 3 percent of bank loans.

Madera Creation products combine traditional patterns with contemporary materials.

BLC Bank is trying to change this. With support from IFC, it launched the WE Initiative (Women Empowerment Initiative) program in 2012. The program offers a suite of traditional banking financial services along with other services aimed to enhance the capacity of its women clients in business management, such as training and networking opportunities.

“Typically, entrepreneurs have no time, and women entrepreneurs have even less time because of other responsibilities at home,” says Tania Moussallem, BLC’s assistant general manager. “So, we transformed our bank into a more digital bank and started offering services with women’s needs in mind.”

Among the bank’s offerings are collateral-free loans for women-owned enterprises that have been in business for at least two years and a “Mother’s Fiduciary Account,” which allows women to open accounts and name their minor children as beneficiaries without having to defer to the father or another man.

BLC Bank also trained its employees to detect unconscious bias when dealing with female clients and took steps to promote gender equality in its own business—by introducing paternity leave and setting a target for gender parity at the senior-management level by 2020, for example.

“The program not only created a market in finance but also awareness about the role of women in society,” says Moussallem.

The efforts paid off. BLC Bank now serves more than 32,000 female customers, with outstanding loans to women totaling more than $190 million. BLC is also reaping the benefits of working with a more trustworthy clientele: Women have better loan-payback rates than men in general and tend to be more cautious investors—as well as more loyal customers.

 

Shaping Inclusive Financial Markets

Expanding access to finance for women is a fundamental part of IFC’s efforts to create markets that deliver sustainable development impact . It’s also an important step toward the World Bank Group’s goal of enabling 1 billion people to gain access to financial services by 2020.

Earlier this year, on the occasion of the G-20 leaders’ summit, the World Bank Group took a step forward as it announced the creation of the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi.) The facility aims to enable more than $1 billion in financing to improve access to capital, provide technical assistance, and invest in projects and programs that support women-owned small and medium enterprises (SMEs.) The World Bank acts as the trustee of the facility.

Employees of Madera Creation work on a piece of furniture.

Women and men both need equal access to finance, yet women face greater obstacles when starting or growing their businesses. The access-to-finance gap for female-owned SMEs is estimated at $300 billion a year. The failure to capitalize on women’s productive potential represents a major missed economic opportunity.

To make financial markets more inclusive, IFC works with banks such as BLC Bank and insurance firms to help them design products and services that benefit women and men. We also invest in these institutions so they can expand lending to women-owned SMEs. Over the past decade, IFC has invested $1.6 billion in these businesses through financial institutions, across 25 countries around the world.

Along with the World Bank, IFC also works with governments in initiatives like establishing collateral registries, collecting sex-disaggregated data, and easing business-registration requirements.

In some cases, such as with BLC, IFC’s advisory work creates conditions for other projects to take place. Building on the WE Initiative, IFC and BLC Bank launched in 2016 a risk-sharing facility that is expected to spur $10 million in lending to SMEs—20 percent of which are women-owned businesses.

The success of BLC’s women-focused program encouraged other IFC clients including Bank Muscat, in Oman, and Bank of Palestine to invest in the female segment —creating opportunity for many more entrepreneurs like El Asmar, who’s now expanding the line of products offered by Madera. As she plans for the future, the designer attests that things have also started to change in her relationship with suppliers.

“At the beginning, they saw Nancy,” El Asmar says, referring to her first name. “Now they see Madera.”

Read more about IFC's work to support gender equality, visit www.ifc.org/gender

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Published in October 2017